Di Matteo plots grand finale

For Roberto Di Matteo, being crowned champion of Europe might not be enough.

When the Italian took over as Chelsea’s caretaker manager on March 4, the club was disintegrating at breakneck speed. Fast-forward a little more than two months and Andre Villas-Boas is a distant memory, little more than a raincoat in the annals of history and the days of infighting and mutiny are long gone.

Di Matteo has effected one of the most astonishing transformations in recent footballing memory, resurrecting Chelsea as a serious entity and guiding them past Napoli, Benfica and, most astonishingly of all, Barcelona, to reach tonight’s Champions League final in Munich.

So how will Roman Abramovich reward him on Sunday if the Italian brings him the trophy he covets above all others? Almost certainly the same way he has with the seven previous managers who have worked under him — with a note of thanks and a long goodbye.

It is hardly fair or just, but this is football at the highest level. Di Matteo is thought not to be high-profile enough for Abramovich, who desires someone of the calibre of Fabio Capello rather than a manager who was sacked from his previous job at West Bromwich Albion.

Still, Di Matteo appears sanguine. He knows whether Chelsea overturn the odds one last time or not against a Bayern side scandalously being allowed to play in their home stadium — the decision was made in 2009 but should surely have been switched once it became clear Bayern had a chance of reaching the final — his reputation is sealed.

The players speak in glowing terms about Di Matteo, and why wouldn’t they? He has dragged one last scream of defiance out of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Petr Cech, all of whom appeared to be on their last legs.

Now they genuinely believe they can beat Bayern despite missing suspended John Terry, Ramires, Raul Meireles and Ivanovic.

Defenders David Alaba, Holger Badstuber and Luiz Gustavo are also suspended for the hosts — as they must be referred to — but Di Matteo’s future was at the forefront of questioning before the game.

“People think that we ring up the owner now and again and decide who comes and who’ll be sacked,” laughed Lampard.

“That’s not how it works at this club. It shouldn’t be like that at any club. As a player you do your best for the club. A decision like that is taken out of your hands. If you start thinking like that, you’ll take your eyes off the ball. I won’t think like that. But if we win, I’ll be really happy for the manager.”

So how did Di Matteo view his future? “I’m a very realistic person,” he said. “What happened to me was unexpected.

“Have I discussed my future with Abramovich? We haven’t had time, or it wasn’t relevant, to have that conversation.

“Personally I don’t know how somebody else feels at the moment. We are all excited. I can only guess he’s excited too.

“It [the Champions League trophy] will come sooner or later. We hope it’s tomorrow. But with the quality that’s been at this club before and will certainly come into this club, it will happen.

“It’ll be difficult to win tomorrow because Bayern are a fantastic team. The rest will sort itself out.”

Yet while Di Matteo is focusing on writing history, some of his players are desperate to rewrite their own.

The defeat on penalties to Manchester United in the 2008 final in Moscow still cuts deep for Chelsea’s established stars, and Drogba and Lampard know this could well be their last chance to win this competition, one they did not expect to have.

Drogba was sent off in that game, and for Lampard this is his and Chelsea’s time. His message is clear.

“To be underdogs gives you a determination,” he said. “Bring it on. The fact they’re the home team is a great challenge for us.

“But Moscow isn’t something that’s traumatic to us every day. You learn you can’t win everything. We’ve been lucky enough to win finals and leagues in England, but occasionally you lose. With experience, you have to become more determined with every defeat.

“We remember that feeling of losing, that disappointment, and we’ll use that to inspire us to win tomorrow. You saw the celebrations after the Barca semi-final: we’re so desperate to be here again in a final with a chance to win it.”

And Chelsea have proven time and again under Di Matteo that they cannot be written off, cannot be considered part of the past.

With Bayern struggling at the back due to suspension — midfielder Anatoliy Tymoschuk could fill in at centre-back — Drogba could well enjoy one final hurrah.

Bayern are favourites, but Di Matteo could sign off in the most astonishing style imaginable. His incredible tale has one chapter left to play out.


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